BATON ROUGE, La. - Corn is more than just food in the United States. It's the food that American Indians revered, the food that saved the early colonists from starvation. And it's the food that has sustained the common man in the South, Midwest and Southwest.
Food historian Damon Fowler says there is no other foodstuff - except, perhaps, rice in Asia - that has been as integrally a part of a civilization.
Corn is native to the Americas. The American Indians introduced colonists to the value of this native grass, and corn cultivation followed colonial development from the eastern seaboard as well as American Indian migrations from Central America and Mexico. Wherever it was cultivated, corn became a staple food, feeding both men and animals.
Fowler's book, "Classical Southern Cooking," describes corn as the largest single crop grown in the antebellum South, where every farm and plantation grew corn to feed slaves, mules, chickens and pigs. It thrived in the "mild, humid Southern climate and, once dried, made an ideal, easily stored staple for all," Fowler writes.
"No other single foodstuff can contribute such variety to the table and yet be so commonplace," he adds. "Until recently, most Southerners ate some form of corn every day, at virtually every meal ... . "
Fowler offers several traditional Southern recipes for preparing corn in "Classical Southern Cooking," such as roasted whole ears of corn, fried corn, corn fritters - and a recipe for corn pudding, called Indian, or Green Corn, Pudding.
Finding corn pudding among the collection of classic recipes was a surprise. Corn pudding remains a favorite on Southern tables, especially at large gatherings, holiday meals and potluck dinners. It's an inexpensive dish to make, everybody likes the taste and it's usually the first dish on a serving table at a church supper to run out.
The surprise was in discovering that corn pudding is an old dish.
According to Fowler, corn pudding is a variation of English savory custard puddings. Corn puddings survive "surprisingly unscathed, not only in the South, but also in the Northeast," Fowler adds. The term "Indian" in the recipe title refers to the origin of corn or maize and is not used to signify that corn pudding is an American Indian dish. By the middle of the 19th century, the name Indian corn was becoming archaic, Fowler says.
Also, "green" in the title does not mean corn of that color, but rather refers to tender, young ears that have not fully matured and dried.
Today, recipes for corn pudding are abundant and varied. Some contain grated cheese, others bits of pimento or bell pepper. Many Southern cooks consider corn puddings the same way that Will Rogers regarded humanity - they never met a corn pudding they didn't like.
This is a good dish for fall and an economical comfort food to serve to families dealing with hurricane fatigue and recovery. Here is a recipe for a classic corn pudding, plus a couple more to try.
Indian, or Green Corn, Pudding
2 cups sweet corn kernels, freshly cut
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup light cream or half-and-half
Salt and black pepper in a pepper mill
Whole nutmeg in a grater
2 T. unsalted butter, softened
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 F. Put on a tea kettle of water to boil.
Combine the corn, eggs and cream in a mixing bowl. Season lightly with salt, a grinding of pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Mix well until all are thoroughly combined. Lightly butter a small, ceramic casserole or souffle dish and pour in the corn batter. Place the casserole in the center of a large, deep pan and put it in the lower third of the oven. Pour the boiling water carefully into the larger pan until it comes about halfway up the sides of the casserole dish.
Bake until the pudding is set and firm in the center. Depending on the shape of your casserole dish, it will take between 1 and 1 1/2 hours. The wider and shallower the pan, the quicker the pudding will cook. Be careful not to overcook it, or the eggs could separate. Serve the pudding hot or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.
(Recipe from "Classical Southern Cooking" by Damon Lee Fowler)
Impossibly Easy Calico Corn and Bacon Pie
8 slices bacon, crisply cooked and crumbled ( 1/2 cup)
1 small onion, chopped ( 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper
8-ounce can whole-kernel corn, drained
2-ounce jar diced pimentos, drained
2/3 cup original or reduced-fat Bisquick mix
1 cup milk
1/8 tsp. pepper
Sour cream, if desired
Heat oven to 400 F. Spray bottom and side of a 9-inch pie plate that is 1 1/4 inches deep, with nonstick cooking spray. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the bacon. Sprinkle remaining bacon, the onion, bell pepper, corn and pimentos in pie plate. Stir remaining ingredients, except sour cream, until blended. Pour into pie plate.
Bake uncovered about 30 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Let stand 5 minutes. Garnish with sour cream and reserved bacon and serve.
Tip: Get a jump-start on dinner. Mix up this pie the night before, then pop it in the oven when you get home from work. After adding all ingredients to pie plate, cover and refrigerate up to 24 hours. Uncover and bake 30 to 35 minutes. Makes 6 servings.
(Recipe from "Betty Crocker Bisquick II Cookbook")
2 T. butter
2 T. salad oil
1/2 onion, chopped fine
1 cup corn kernels, canned or fresh
1 T. sugar
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese
3 eggs, separated
Heat butter and salad oil in skillet. Saute onion, add corn, sugar, salt and pepper. Cool and add cheese and well-beaten egg yolks. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Pour in well-greased 9-by-11-inch casserole and set in pan of hot water. Bake in 350 F oven for 1 hour. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.
Note: This is good with pork.
(Recipe from "River Road Recipes")